"‘I’m disappointed in you, Dick. The report you have produced is grossly unfair’.
“I was genuinely puzzled and said: ‘Unfair to the Jews or to the Arabs?’
“To this he replied crossly: ‘No, unfair to Britain, of course. You’ve let us down by giving way to the Jews and Americans’.”
So wrote Richard Crossman, Labour MP, about “a desultory and unsatisfactory interview” with Prime Minister Clement Atlee in 1946.
Despite the Labour Party’s passionate support only a couple of years before, this exchange characterised the British refusal to support Zionist aspirations after 1945. It ended when Britain — alone of the wartime allies — abstained in the UN vote to partition the Holy Land 70 years ago this week.
Crossman had been a member of the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry on Palestine and was originally perceived to be a safe pair of hands by Atlee and his Foreign Secretary, the right-wing trade union leader, Ernest Bevin. Ironically the Commission had rejected a Jewish state, but it was the proposed issuing of 100,000 permits to displaced persons in Europe, the wreckage of the Shoah, to leave for Palestine that had infuriated Atlee.
Bevin believed the Shoah had been “a solitary historical phenomenon”, separate from the question of Palestine. Jews, he argued, should remain in Europe and those who wished to leave for Palestine, should be accommodated in a unitary Arab state. Yet the cabinet was divided. Aneurin Bevan, the founder of the NHS, and Hugh Dalton strongly supported the establishment of a Hebrew republic.
The presence of huge numbers of troops in Palestine proved too costly for a virtually bankrupt post-war Britain. In early February 1947, Bevin suddenly announced an end to the British Mandate and subsequently asked the UN to find a solution. In May 1947, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) was established with 11 states, providing members.
A majority of UNSCOP members — Canada, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, Holland, Peru, Sweden and Uruguay — subsequently proposed partition and economic union between the Jewish and Arab states. India, Iran and Yugoslavia proposed instead a federal state of Palestine. Australia abstained.
The Arab Higher Committee on Palestine which favoured a one-state solution rejected both reports while the Jewish Agency welcomed the majority report — albeit with reservations about borders.
The proposed Jewish state comprised the coastal plain from Haifa to Rehovot and much of eastern Galilee. Most of its territory was the wilderness of the Negev and only some 55 per cent of its inhabitants would be Jews — virtually a binational state.
The Arab state was homogeneously 99 per cent Arab. Later Acre and Jaffa were transferred to the Arab state increasing the percentage of Jews in the proposed Jewish state.
On September 23 1947 an Ad Hoc Committee on Palestine was established to consider UNSCOP’s recommendations. The British pre-condition was that it would be unable to endorse any recommendations unless it was acceptable to both Jews and Arabs.
The Ad Hoc Committee finally proposed a resolution for the UN General Assembly based on a two-state solution, an international regime for Jerusalem and an end to the Mandate by August 1 1948.
On November 25 the General Assembly approved the final wording of the plan for the proposed partition. While it passed, it significantly failed to achieve a two-thirds majority which the Zionists would need when the actual UN resolution 181 would be voted upon.
Lobbying by both sides now reached new heights of frantic activity. For the Zionists it was defined by an anxious search for any kind of leverage to secure the few extra votes. Most Jews understood that this was a now-or-never moment — an opportunity to change the course of Jewish history, to dance on Hitler’s grave. As David Ben-Gurion later put it: “What matters is not what the non-Jews will say, but what the Jews will do.”
Influential Jewish businessmen were contacted, Jewish mistresses prevailed upon to persuade their lovers. Favours were called in and tasks allotted. Telephones glowed red-hot and telegrams were sent by the cart-load. Some offers were rejected, such as that of Jewish gangsters in New York to kidnap anti-partition delegates and hold them hostage until the vote had taken place.
Perhaps more important was that the White House moved into a higher gear despite President Truman’s irritation at being besieged by the demands of pro-Zionist Americans. The vote was due to take place on November 26, but Oswaldo Aranha, the Brazilian president of the General Assembly, conveniently called for a delay of three days, ostensibly to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Some sections of the British Foreign Office had originally calculated that the two-thirds majority would never be attained because the Soviet Union would maintain its traditional anti-Zionist policy and stamp out any suggestion of a Jewish state.
Yet in May 1947, Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet permanent representative to the UN, told the assembly that the best solution was a bi-national state, but failing that, a partitioned one. Stalin wished to oust the British from the Middle East, stop the Americans from taking their place and secure a warm deep-sea port in Haifa.
Marxist Zionists in Palestine were overjoyed — their Soviet comrades had finally seen the light. The daily Al Hamishmar labelled Gromyko’s speech as “the Soviet Balfour Declaration”.
Despite this external support by the USSR, internally Soviet Jews were being arrested for asking to leave for Palestine.
Many Zionists had now adopted a pragmatic course of action despite their own ideological convictions. The Shoah and the immediacy of the parlous state of survivors changed everything. The dream of a Greater Israel receded while partition was becoming a self-evident solution. The religious Zionists of Hapoel Hamizrahi side-lined their attraction for biblical borders and supported partition. Abba Hillel Silver, a Reform rabbi and Zionist maximalist, long resisted the idea of partition until agreeing to the UNSCOP proposals. Even the non-Zionist strictly Orthodox of Agudat Yisrael grew silent. Ben-Gurion’s letter to Yitzhak Meir Levin, assuring him of Shabbat observance, kashrut, the jurisdiction of halakhah, the autonomous network of Aguda schools, secured acquiescence and an end to obstruction. Only the Zionist right-wing stood out against partition.
When the vote finally took place on November 29, seven votes switched from abstentions to voting for the resolution. The delegate from the Philippines turned up to vote in favour whereas previously he had been absent. The two-thirds majority had been attained.
As history records, the US took 11 minutes to recognise Israel in May 1948, following the expiry of the Mandate. Britain took eight months and Israel never joined the Commonwealth.
But it was the other superpower, the USSR, together with its satellites, which unexpectedly provided a crucial five votes. If it had not been for Stalin – a tyrant who took the lives of countless millions – the state of Israel would not have come into existence.
Colin Shindler’s latest book, ‘The Hebrew Republic: Israel’s Return to History’, is published by Rowman and Littlefield